Page last updated at 17:54 GMT, Wednesday, 6 May 2009 18:54 UK

Are election broadcasts a turn-off?

By Marc Settle
Producer, BBC Radio 4's PM programme

To some they are an essential part of our democratic fabric.

To others, perhaps the majority, they are simply an opportunity to get up from watching the TV and make a cup of tea.

And now the man behind "Big Brother" and "Ready Steady Cook" thinks the party political broadcast (PPB) should be turned off for good.

Anthony Eden in the first party political broadcast in 1951
Anthony Eden takes part in the first party political broadcast in 1951

With the advent of new media like YouTube, Peter Bazalgette believes the era of the PPB has come and gone.

"They're outmoded, they're dull and very boring," he told Radio 4's PM programme. "The confidential ratings of audience appreciation show the public hate them.

"In the last two weeks we've seen Alistair Darling and the prime minister simply put out their own statements on YouTube, which are then picked up by the media, so now politicians can create their own content and distribute it.

"They no longer need party political broadcasts to be given to them on the television channels."

Democratic safeguard

The first broadcasts went out on BBC radio during the 1924 general election campaign, with the then party leaders each making a speech lasting around 20 minutes.

They were first seen on television in 1951 during that year's general election, and over time the format gradually changed from that of a formal speech or interview to the slick, glossy productions we know - although few seem to love - now.

But one experienced observer of the British political scene speaks up for party election broadcasts (PEB), arguing that should be retained.

"They are not from a bygone age," says Nick Jones, a BBC political correspondent for 30 years and the author of several books on how politicians manipulate the media.

"For smaller minority parties, the opportunity to have a platform at peak time on TV is something which is worth many more times the possibility of an appearance on YouTube.

"An election broadcast is the moment when they encapsulate their campaign and they have the chance to communicate.

"It's all well and good saying the blogosphere and the internet has overtaken - it hasn't, and a lot of elderly and poorer people still watch TV, so these peak time election broadcasts are a very important democratic safeguard."

'Dreadful sermons'

The rules on the broadcasts mean they can not last more than five minutes, with political parties often preferring them to run at half that length.

Outside of election campaigns, broadcasts are limited to the party conference seasons, the Queen's Speech and the Budget statement.

They are just dire. Viewers can't bear them
Peter Bazalgette

Peter Bazalgette suggests an alternative to the broadcasts.

"They're just dire," he says. "Viewers can't bear them. I challenge the parties to ever to be able to make them well.

"They're dreadful, dry, portentous sermons. They don't even have any effect on the campaign.

"If parties are to have unmediated air time, there should be political advertising."

Unlike the United States, Britain does not allow politically-funded advertising on television, although it is allowed on radio, on posters and online.

Some observers worry about the effect that political advertising would have on smaller parties.

"We don't allow the political parties to abuse the broadcast airwaves as happens in America where the party which raises the most money can have the most negative ads," Nick Jones says. "We have standards here!"

Peter Bazalgette has a solution to the funding question.

"The government is now the largest advertiser on TV and radio," he explains.

"During a four week election campaign, take the money the government would have spent and allot it to the parties, depending on how many seats they're fighting."

The effectiveness of PEBs has long been debated but there are those who are in no doubt that they do work.

"Just ask the SNP, Plaid Cymru, or the Liberal Democrats," Nick Jones says.

"It is at election times when broadcasters have to give them opportunities on air that their ratings improve.

Gordon Brown
Labour's latest party election broadcast was posted on YouTube before the TV

"The election broadcast is one of those building blocks which allows small minority parties, if they can stump up enough money to put enough candidates, to guarantee them an election broadcast.

"It's a valiant attempt to put across their message."

Even if parties are attempting to get their message across, voters seem less receptive, with turnout broadly declining over successive general elections.

Voter interaction

And the man behind Big Brother sees a danger inherent in political broadcasts which he says needs to be addressed.

"Sermonising and pushing stuff at people, which is what these broadcasts encourage politicians to do, is completely out of keeping with the times," says Peter Bazalgette.

"People have conversations online, they expect to react, they expect to contribute.

"I've suggested the BBC's election coverage next time ought to publish the manifestos and people should be allowed to amend them wiki-style.

"That would establish a dialogue between voters and politicians which could even affect the policies as they're brought through.

"We've got to think in a more modern way. We've got to look forward and find new ways of getting politics across. We've just got to think of new ways and start modernising the system."



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EUROPEAN ELECTION RESULTS

MEP Seats

  Votes MEPs
Party % +/- % Total +/-
EPP 33.4 -1.4 264 -18
Socialists 23.2 -4.1 183 -26
Liberal 11.0 +1.6 84 +5
Green 7.4 +1.3 50 +9
Left 5.3 -0.6 34 -2
UEN 3.4 +1.6 28 +2
Ind/Dem 2.7 -1.8 21 -15
No Group 13.6 +3.4 72 +3.4
0 of 27 countries declared.

UK Total MEP Seats

Party Votes MEPs
% +/- % Total +/-
CON 27.7 1.0 *26 1
UKIP 16.5 0.3 13 1
LAB 15.7 -6.9 13 -5
LD 13.7 -1.2 11 1
GRN 8.6 2.4 2 0
BNP 6.2 1.3 2 2
SNP 2.1 0.7 2 0
PC 0.8 -0.1 1 0
OTH 8.5 2.4 0 0
SF 1 0
DUP 1 0
72 of 72 seats declared. Vote share figures exclude Northern Ireland as it has a separate electoral system to the rest of the UK
* Includes UCUNF MEP elected in Northern Ireland
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